The Epistolary Passions of Sympathy: Feeling Letters in Persuasion and Burney's the Wanderer

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"There are two Traits in her Character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, & drinks no cream in her Tea."

--15 September 1796(1)

THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT AUSTEN was a fan of Frances Burney. Modern criticism has explored the significant influence of Burney's fiction on Austen's own novels as well as her letters for at least the past four decades. Although this textual relationship has received considerable attention, what is seldom noted is that both figures share a common influence that undergirds the fictional world of each writer, a once-discredited influence that comes from the heart of eighteenth-century popular culture's deepest rivers of excess: the culture of Sensibility. Studies tracing the significance of the literature of Sensibility--sometimes described interchangeably as sentimental literature--have multiplied over the past decade or so, generally focusing on its manifestations in prose fiction of the latter half of the eighteenth century. (2) While this tradition might serve as a consistently ambivalent interest for Burney's novels, critics conventionally have assumed that it provides little more than raw material for the satirical eye of Austen's earliest work. Revisiting this conventional wisdom is long overdue, however, and I will suggest that examining the epistolary elements of their late fiction within this context should enable readers to appreciate far more fully what energizes and enlivens Austen's work in contrast to that of her beloved Burney. Although the following considerations cannot be sketched comprehensively in the space available, I hope to provide a convincing if necessarily provisional context for rereading Austen's investment in the passions of sympathy that dominated the eighteenth-century cultural landscape.

Tracing its contours shows us that Austen, like Burney, is not only indebted to this earlier literary and cultural tradition, but in fact continues to rework it in fundamental ways. In other words, it is not merely that elements in the work of both writers echo or reflect the influence of eighteenth-century works of Sensibility. More significantly, both writers are working actively to keep the tradition alive rather than to kill it off--whether through parody, satire, or simple non-engagement--and this strategy is foundational, marking their work and thus the Romantic era in which it is produced. (3) While it might seem a strange place to begin, Laurence Sterne serves as the touchstone for the innovative use of feeling in both writers. As I have argued elsewhere, although Samuel Richardson and the epistolary tradition of the eighteenth-century novel more broadly are obvious catalysts, Sterne provides the single most important and influential embodiment of Sensibility on writers of the next generation, including both the canonical and noncanonical figures most commonly associated with Romanticism. (4) With the exception of a stray reference in MansfieldPark, Sterne's influence on Austen is generally ignored, especially in relation to the bible of Sensibility, A Sentimental Journey. Critics seem comfortable with the tacit assumption that Sterne's bawdy eccentricity--much like his investment in Sensibility and the sentimental--must be less relevant to the wit and wisdom of Austen's fiction than the more conventional influences with which scholars are now so familiar: Dr. Johnson's periodicals, Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, poetry by Crabbe, Cowper, and Thomson, and of course, Burney's novels; this is another assumption that bears revisiting.

Austen is also a special case since, unlike Burney, all of her major works were published in the nineteenth century, and she is claimed actively by scholars of Romanticism, despite the broad reach of the increasingly "long" eighteenth century. The former have the clear advantage with regard to Persuasion. Since this novel was her last completed work, there is a particularly pervasive tendency to read it as Romantic, and most critical commentary reflects this assumption. …


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